Cougars turn to rivalry game for jumpstart

by Chris Goltermann

There’s no better medicine after a humbling football loss - and Newnan’s 52-21 defeat in last Friday’s opener at home to Marietta was as frustrating a debut as head coach Mike McDonald could probably imagine - than a rivalry game.

LaGrange, however, will be hungrier than ever to end an annual series that has been one-sided since 2004 in the Cougars’ favors. With Newnan’s youth and inexperienced exposed a week ago, the Grangers may feel their time for payback has finally come.

A 34-0 throttling of interstate neighbor Valley, Ala., in its preseason scrimmage may have just what LaGrange fans had been hoping for in a defensive turnaround a year after giving up an average of nearly 31 points per game in 2012. It included a comeback effort from the Cougars, who escaped Drake Stadium with a 24-21 victory last fall, its sixth straight in a 86-game series that dates back to 1908.

Despite all of Newnan’s struggles last week against Marietta, which scored on six consecutive drives in between the second and third quarter while turning two turnovers and a blocked punt into points, a victory tonight at Callaway Stadium provides an opportunity for the Cougars to regain some of the momentum that had the team predicted to contend for this year’s Region 3-AAAAAA crown.

“It’s a little humbling,” McDonald said. “Like I told them. We’re obviously not as good as some of the predictions said we would be, but we’re also not as bad as last week showed. “We just have to get better and do some things better this week.”

While the to-do list was longer than hoped even after being unable to experience a preseason scrimmage prior to the opener, there were glaring issues, most of which stuck out like a sore thumb in a 28-point third quarter by the Blue Devils.

Newnan was unable to maintain much of any offensive momentum with a turnover on its first drive. A green secondary among a defense with seven new starters, struggled to blanket opposing receivers. Simultaneously, the team’s front eight too often let Marietta junior Brenton Martin escape trouble while throwing for five touchdowns and 249 yards in his first varsity start.

The bubble finally burst, however, when Martin staved off a 3rd and 21 to fire a 75-yard scoring strike with under eight minutes left in the third quarter of a 23-14 Blue Devil lead to an open Blue Devil receiver.

“The big third down conversion broke our back,” McDonald admitted. “You have to get off the field that series. We can’t give up the big plays and we gave up more of them probably than in the last three years combined.”

Of the five touchdown throws, all but one came to receivers that had more than a step between his defender in Newnan’s first game since losing safeties Tray Matthews (Georgia) and Darrell Morrow (West Georgia Tech), along with cornerback Rodney Tennie. All three were All-County selections last fall.

“We’re an inexperienced secondary. It’s not easy to replace guys like Darrell, Rodney and Tray,” McDonald said. “You go all summer in passing leagues, but it’s different when you get under the lights on Friday night. We had some situations where we doubled a man and left a receiver wide open. We worked this week on what to look for with those types of things.”

Things won’t get any easier this week for the Cougar defense. LaGrange’s offense returns senior running backs Benny Gray (5-11, 200) and Mon Denson (5-11, 200), also a starting safety on the defense. Denson had a 51-yard touchdown that accounted for the Grangers final points in last year’s meeting at Drake Stadium before Newnan reeled of 17 unanswered in a 24-21 comeback victory.

In last week’s scrimmage against Valley, Ala., Gray and Denson combined for three touchdowns.

Senior quarter Wynton Heard (6-0, 170) has for now supplanted last year’s starter Zach Giddens, who threw for a touchdown in last year’s game against the Cougars.

LaGrange’s defense equally looks to have turned a corner a year after allowing 35 or more points six times during a 6-6 season, the program’s third under head coach Donnie Branch, previously a longtime defensive coordinator for the Grangers. The program’s six wins last year were the most since it went 8-3 in 2009.

“They’re extremely physical,” McDonald said. “They bring pressure on every play, so we’re going to have to be ready for that.”

Senior inside linebacker Tae Glover (6-1, 230) joins Denson among experienced starters returning for LaGrange’s 3-4 defense. This year’s group also includes linebackers Shevondre Maddox (5-10, 200, Sr.) and Jeremiah Wright (5-10, 200, So.), senior defensive tackle Daz Dunlap (5-7, 230) and junior cornerback Emmanuel Swanson (6-1, 170), who had a fumble recovery last week.

Senior kicker Taylor Stanford also returns to what should be a much improved LaGrange lineup and new punter Gus Golden was a bright spot in the scrimmage as well.

Branch, however, is wary of the Cougars and saw past much of the Newnan’s mistakes while in attendance last week.

“It doesn’t matter who Newnan plays, it’s competitive. You can’t line up somebody they’re not competitive with, so that was a shocking turn of events the other night. And it’s not indicative of what they are. It didn’t fool me,” Branch told Keith Ecklesberry of the LaGrange Daily News. “I was there. I looked at them, and they looked like Newnan to me.”

Regardless, Newnan will have to play more like its 9-3 lineup from a year ago.

McDonald said there were some positives on offense, which included junior quarterback Bailey Bryant throwing for over 200 yards and three touchdowns, the first of which came on a drive of under a minute just before halftime.

But two fumbles and a 13-play drive in the first that ended with a turnover on downs were sore spots.

“We’ve got to try and execute better on offense,” McDonald said. “Yes, we have Bailey back at quarterback, but we’ve also got a lot of new players in there. It’s going to take a while to get up to speed. We knew these first three games were going to be tough. We’ve just got to go out there and play like we’re capable.”

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